Thursday, April 26, 2012

Charleston Hospitality Updated

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta greets Senators Howard Baker (seated at left) and Bob Dole.
Charleston Hospitality Updated
by Ned Brown
, April 2012

Civility: Congress — now there’s an oxymoron in today’s Washington, DC toxic environment. How things have changed in just over two decades.

A perfect reflection of this are these remarks made at a recent dinner by Defense Secretary (and former House member) Leon Panetta. The audience members were mostly elder statesmen and women: 

Leon Panetta.
“A lot of us have been here long enough to remember when Republicans and Democrats actually worked together. The other night I had the opportunity to participate in a ceremony that honored Bob Dole and Howard Baker and it reminded me of when I was in the Congress. (Senate Majority Leader) Mike Mansfield and (Republican Dean of the Senate) George Aiken would have coffee together every morning.

I remember (House Speaker) Tip O'Neill and (House Minority Leader) Bob Michael being able to enjoy a drink together and play golf together and work on the tough issues that faced the country.  They worked together because they believed that compromise was not a dirty word, but it was the essence of how you governed the country.  They worked together because they were willing to take the risks needed to solve problems. The budget was balanced because of that leadership, because of their work, and governing was considered good politics, because it was.

It is a sad commentary that we come together at a time when partisanship appears to be more important than statesmanship and when politics is more important than policy.”

Another example: having coffee recently with a legislative aide, who formerly worked with Congressman David Dreier of California, the aide opined: “My boss would fight during the day with the Dems, but once it was over, he loved to relax with his good friend, (Rep.) Charlie Rangel. They could not have been more different politically, but they enjoyed each other’s company.” It is said that former House Speaker Tip O’Neill and President Reagan had a similar relationship. They would argue 9 to 5, but after 6 p.m., the two Irish pols would have drinks together, tell jokes, stories and trade political gossip.
President Reagan and Tip O'Neill.
That atmosphere of collegiality has fallen by the wayside in today’s Washington political environment. Most of these changes resulted from several factors: a) the legislative work sessions have been compacted to spend a few days in DC over a two-week period (back home from Friday to Tuesday), b) the perceived anti-Washington sentiment whereby representatives want to spend as little time in DC as possible, and c) when they are in DC, they spend almost all of their working time either in legislative session, meetings, on the phone raising money or at fundraisers. A relatively small amount is social interaction with other members — usually it is quick chats coming and going from the House and Senate gyms.

Only a handful of members are secure enough to live in DC these days. What’s lost is any meaningful after-hours social life with other members, and interaction between spouses and their families. The loss of bi-partisan engagement by members on a social level has a direct impact to find common ground on legislation and policy issues. Lack of familiarity has bred contempt.
Rep. Russ and (ret.) Judge Carnahan in campaign mode.
Rep. Russ Carnahan (D-Missouri) and his wife, (ret.) Judge Debra Carnahan, are very sanguine about the deteriorating situation. Russ is from a Missouri political dynasty: his late father, Mel, was a popular two-term Governor, mother, Jeanne, was a U.S. Senator, and his sister, Robin, is the current Secretary of State. Russ Carnahan says of the current situation, “There is less that gets done, because there is less willingness to compromise. People come into the Capitol with an intractable position. I am on the Transportation & Infrastructure Committee. Historically, we have been bi-partisan, and a lot got done. Not anymore, now the committee is much too partisan, less gets done, and it is the constituents who suffer. A big part of that change is not being able to spend more informal time together to discuss the issues.”

All of which brings us to two charming, talented and energetic ladies in Charleston, South Carolina, Elizabeth “Lee” Manigault and Suzanne Pollak, who understand the importance of grace, social discourse, food, fun and relaxation to round-off the edges of one’s professional life. Lee and Suzanne have started a program in Charleston to help men and women lead more civilized, elegant and enriched lives — very “Zenish” on a how-to level.

Charleston Academy of Domestic Pursuits.
They call it the Charleston Academy of Domestic Pursuits. What is the program all about? Both chimed in, “We teach people to live in their homes, how to connect with family around meals, and how to connect with friends in your environment.” They believe strongly in disconnecting from the wired world, and reconnecting with your home. Pollak and Manigault started the program in July 2011, and refer to themselves as the “Deans.”

So what would qualify these two as social-lifestyle arbiters? Suzanne Pollak grew-up in various African countries where her late father worked for the U.S. Government. More specifically, he was the CIA’s Station Chief in multiple African countries over the span of his career. The Pollak family lived on par with the resident U.S. Ambassador (sometimes better), and was perceived by the local governments as often more influential with the powers back in Washington, D.C. Pollak grew up in households with servants aplenty.

On one occasion, her father gave the cook the night off, and told Suzanne and her sister to prepare dinner. Not having a clue about what was in the kitchen, they pulled together whatever they could find, and whipped it up into a mystery concoction. Pollak says it turned out surprisingly good. Taking the challenge one step further, Spymaster Pollak invited several top Liberian government officials to his home, and asked his daughters to replicate their dinner. Apparently it worked out well as U.S.-Liberian relations still remain sound.
Suzanne Pollak and Lee Manigault (top).
Manigault and Pollak (above).
Pollak and Manigault with Eugenia Burtschy (left).
Pollak definitely has an elegant, laid-back Out of Africa, Baroness Karen von Blixen-Finecke style about her. You would expect to see her in Peter Beard’s photographs among the Maasi.

Elizabeth “Lee” Manigault is a Van Alen, which is synonymous with Manhattan, the north shore of Long Island and Newport. She is the grand-daughter of the late, great gentleman, Jimmy Van Alen, creator of the tennis tie-break scoring system. Manigault is also an Astor descendant. She was born into lineage and social stature. Learning as a young woman to set a formal dinner comes as easily as braiding hair. Manigault has a trove of experience with formal entertaining, overlaid with a sense of confidence and ease of informality. Both Manigault and Pollak say that they enjoy being hostesses, and their different styles complement each other.
Suzanne Pollak preparing the Spanish lamb shoulder. Elizabeth Manigault working the rigatoni.
Pollak and Manigault entertain while cooking ...
Mussels in fresh lemongrass broth. Rigatoni with fresh mozzarella.
Pollak and Manigault at the cocktail party class.
Domestic Pursuits attendees.
One of their recent “domestic pursuits” took place in the Charleston home of Eugenia and Larry Burtschy, who live at 2 Prioleau Street in the historic wharf area. Their home is a renovated warehouse, then transformed into law offices, and then by Larry Burtschy into a home during his bachelor days. From its third floor entertainment area and rooftop terrace, the views of Charleston harbor are nothing less than spectacular.

As the Burtschys have two young children, they listed their current home for sale, so that they could move to a more conventional downtown Charleston home with an enclosed garden and lawn. Eugenia Burtschy was one of the first students at the Charleston Academy of Domestic Pursuits.
View of Charleston harbor from the Burtschys' rooftop terrace. Photos by Ben Gately Williams. Ben's iconic images of the South can be seen at He has been featured in many Southern magazines, and his work presented at the Rebekah Jacobs Gallery, Charleston, SC.
Most of the Deans’ events, which they try to do several times each month, generally include six to seven attendees. The overall impression of what Manigault and Pollak are trying to advocate is a worthwhile endeavor; which brings the story back to the loss civility and the art of entertaining.

Great former Washington hostesses, such as Pamela Harriman (and wife of the late former Governor of New York, Averell Harriman) knew the importance of bringing people together to further public policy, business and friendships.
Governor Averell and Ambassador Pamela Harriman.
Digressing for a moment with a Harriman dinner party side-story: Vice-President Joe Biden loves to recount about being a newly elected U.S. Senator at the ripe old age of thirty, and being invited to the Harrimans’ to meet roughly twenty members of Georgetown’s power elite. After dinner, a small group withdrew to the living room; the group included the Governor and Dr. Henry Kissinger. Senator Biden, taking a seat in an armchair, was being peppered with foreign policy questions by the “elders."

Being a bit nervous, Biden picked-up a roundish object on the coffee table, and casually began passing it back-and-forth, right to left hands, as he continued to answer questions. The young senator did not realize that as he answered questions, all eyes were transfixed on the object he was juggling between his hands. After a few minutes, Governor Harriman reached over, casually tapped Biden’s hand, removed the ovoid object, and placed it back on its stand. Biden lets out a big laugh today and exclaims, “How would I know it was a priceless jeweled Faberge egg?”
Harrimans' long-time Georgetown house.
Back to the conversation with the “Deans”: they continue with their insights, “Men show-up for dinner parties. Women are the social glue that move the evening along. A truly gifted hostess is like a circus ringmaster; you keep the event lively, interesting and orderly. There is never a question of who is in charge.” During our session in Eugenia Burtschy’s kitchen, the Deans imparted their wisdom to the attendees while preparing a lunch of roasted Spanish lamb shoulder, mussels in lemongrass broth and rigatoni with fresh mozzarella.

In addition to the Deans’ regular classes, they will do custom events for small groups; this includes visitors to Charleston. I would whole-heartedly encourage a private Deans’ event for visitors trying to understand the Charleston lifestyle. Manigault and Pollak are a font of information. They graciously represent traditional Charleston hospitality with an updated twist. Visit the Charleston Academy of Domestic Pursuits here, or on Facebook.

And keep civility alive!